Commentary: What the two ‘Mormon’ senators tell us about the LDS battle over sexuality

(Rick Scuteri | AP Photo) U.S. Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., declares victory over Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Sinema won Arizona's open U.S. Senate seat in a race that was among the most closely watched in the nation, beating McSally in the battle to replace GOP Sen. Jeff Flake.

Last week, two states elected first-time senators who were raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both are graduates of Brigham Young University, both credit the Mormon faith for shaping their upbringing and both are seen as the kind of moderates that often reflect the pragmatic nature of the Utah-based church.

But only one is consistently identified as the “Mormon” politician: Mitt Romney, a Republican elected to represent Utah, embodies the clean-cut, traditional and conservative image typically associated with modern Mormonism. The other is somewhat the opposite: Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat elected to represent Arizona, is an openly bisexual woman who no longer identifies with the faith. Romney’s Mormonism is often highlighted to explain his agenda and approach; Sinema’s religious past is rarely seen as more than an odd piece of personal trivia.

But the two senators-elect represent a tension at the very heart of the modern LDS tradition. Understanding why one and not the other is immediately associated with the faith reveals much about an evolving institution that is still trying to define who does and does not belong in an increasingly global church.

Mitt Romney, whose story is well-known after being in the national spotlight for the last decade, was born to political and religious royalty. His father was not only a wildly prosperous businessman and successful politician, but also a prominent member of the LDS Church. Mitt lived up to much of that legacy, in both spheres. He spent two years as a missionary in France before receiving a degree from BYU in Provo. Before being elected as Massachusetts’ moderate governor, Romney served as a local leader for the faith as a bishop and stake president. He often invoked those experiences as the place where he learned service, compassion and organization. (The LDS tradition also trained him in a particularly staunch yet pragmatic form of conservatism.) When he received the Republican nomination for the presidency, the GOP national convention featured several men and women who knew Romney more as pastor than politician.

Romney’s two presidential bids, first in the 2008 primaries and then in the 2012 general election, brought an enormous spotlight to the faith. Coupled with the craze surrounding a new Broadway musical, “The Book of Mormon,” these years became known as the “Mormon Moment.” As such, Romney served as a suitable stand-in for the church’s stereotypes in the 21st century: wholesome, upper-class, white and Republican. His conquering of the economic world exemplified a commitment to capitalism, and his exemplary family — featuring all those handsome sons with their rugged jawlines — depicted success in the domestic realm, too. As journalists tried to explain his “Mormon underwear” and evangelicals worried if a “non-Christian” should hold public office, one thread was common: Mitt Romney was an exact representative of the Mormon faith and all its cultural commitments.

After losing to Barack Obama in 2012, many, including Romney himself, assumed he would make his southern California mansion the home-base for future pursuits. Yet that was short-lived, as he soon relocated to Utah. Deseret’s gravitational pull can be strong for the Mormon faithful. Romney flirted with running for president again in 2016 — though now his prominent speeches were delivered from Salt Lake City instead of Boston — but his true political comeback wasn’t until his announced run to replace the retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch. Now campaigning in Utah, Romney was finally free to unabashedly draw on his Mormon faith and background. His victory was a foregone conclusion.

Many moderates are now hoping that Romney will martial a particularly “Mormon” form of resistance to Donald Trump: dignified in tone, compassionate in discourse and conservative in principles — a resistance that is, not ironically, very similar to the retiring Jeff Flake, whose Senate seat Sinema just won by the thinnest of margins.

In many ways, Kyrsten Sinema’s youth couldn’t have been more different than Romney’s. She was raised in the kind of abject poverty that is the exact opposite of the Romney family’s wealth. There were times, she remembers, that her family didn’t even have electricity or running water. But like Romney’s, Sinema’s upbringing was framed by the Mormon faith, and she learned from her local congregation how communities could help those who were struggling or left behind.

When she graduated valedictorian at age 16 and it was time to choose a college, she decided on BYU, the university of her faith. Based on her academic acumen as well as religious commitment, she was awarded the Ezra Taft Benson scholarship, a prestigious fellowship named after the church’s president at the time. Her performance did not disappoint: Sinema graduated with her bachelor’s degree at age 18.

But that is where her path sharply diverged from Romney’s. Where Romney spent most of his adulthood in leadership positions for the church, Sinema chose to leave the faith shortly after leaving Utah for Arizona. Her civic beliefs were also far from those of Romney: Her first experience in the political world was working for Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in 2000. (She soon moderated and moved from the Green to Democratic Party.) After serving in both chambers of the Arizona Legislature, she was elected a U.S. congresswoman in 2013. It was then that she gained national attention for being the first openly bisexual person elected to Congress.

Throughout all these achievements, however, she was mostly mum on her childhood faith. It no longer played a role in her new life. Indeed, one of her biggest achievements — co-chairing a campaign to defeat a proposition that would have prohibited same-sex marriages in the state — came in direct opposition to LDS organized efforts. If anything, her identity was built in opposition to her faith’s public stance. She’s often reluctant to discuss her religious beliefs, let alone her connection to the faith of her childhood.

What makes Sinema an uncomfortable fit with the mainstream Mormon image is not merely her political party — there has always been a strong, if overshadowed, tradition of Mormon Democrats — but more her stance on gender and sexuality. Harry Reid, the Democrat Senate majority leader known for his sharp barbs at Republicans, was just as vocal about his Mormon faith as Romney and even spoke on the topic at BYU. But as a white, straight man, and not at the forefront of the fight for same-sex marriage, Reid still possessed a number of cultural markers that allowed him to pass safely in the Mormon community. Sinema, on the other hand, as a bisexual woman who fought strongly for LGBT liberties, could not maintain that connection.

Sinema is not alone in her particular spiritual path and cultural disassociation. Jacinda Ardern, the current prime minister of New Zealand, was also raised Mormon but then left the faith when she concluded it conflicted with her commitment to LGBT rights. Like Sinema, she now identifies as agnostic. For both of these ambitious and talented women, the LDS Church proved to be unable to accommodate their evolving political views, which in the end necessitated a separation. Both credit the Mormon community for helping raise them as talented and preparing them to serve their societies, yet neither sees it as elastic enough to encompass her new role as a political leader.

Nor does the LDS Church seem eager to claim people like Sinema and Ardern as their own. Mormon authorities in recent years have not only refused to budge on gender issues but, in several ways, have even drawn clearer boundaries. In a new policy drafted in 2015, framed in response to the new legal status granted to gay couples in America, the church declared any member who entered a same-sex marriage to be in apostasy. Further, it denied crucial ordinances, like baptism, to children of gay couples. The implications were clear: There was no place for practicing homosexuals, or their families, in the church. LGBT members —including Sinema, if she were still part of the faith and in a homosexual relationship — are forced to either choose a life of celibacy or risk excommunication.

Many younger members of the faith have chafed at these new culture wars. Some have mobilized in recent years to directly protest the institution. Others have tried to find paths of reconciliation and have worked with leaders to construct a middle way. Most notably, Dan Reynolds, lead singer for Imagine Dragons, has teamed up with the church to try to demonstrate a middle way, particularly in addressing the tragically rampant problem of gay suicides. Many, however, have found the attempts unsustainable and, like Sinema, have turned away from the faith. Cultural observers and LDS officials alike have referenced a growing wave of disaffection among the younger generation of the church.

The tense relationship has only grown more fraught in the past couple of years. Persistent messages from the highest levels of the faith, including President Russell M. Nelson and his counselor Dallin H. Oaks, have emphasized the uncompromising nature of gender boundaries. In a recent address to the entire church, Oaks admitted that “some are troubled by some of our church’s positions on marriage and children.” However, he further insisted that church doctrine “requires us to oppose current social and legal pressures to retreat from traditional marriage and to make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women.” If anything, Mormon leaders are resilient not to give way on this particular policy.

It seems clear, then, why Sinema isn’t as publicly known for her Mormon past as Romney is for his Mormon present. The latter reflects the cultural values currently enshrined by the faith, while the former embodies much that the LDS Church has tried to push aside.

It remains to be seen if modern Mormonism can reverse course and evolve to a point that it can embrace both the Mitt Romneys and the Kyrsten Sinemas of its tradition. The church has made radical changes in the past. Until then, and until the faith’s boundaries become as elastic as the culture that surrounds and shapes it, only one of these freshmen legislators has a chance to be known as the “Mormon” senator.

Benjamin E. Park

Benjamin E. Park (@BenjaminEPark) teaches American religious history at Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas. His book “The Kingdom of Nauvoo: A Story of Mormon Politics, Plural Marriage, and Power in Nineteenth-Century America” (W.W. Norton/Liveright) will appear in 2019.